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Enrico Merlin
Code MD: Coded Phrases in the First "Electric Period"

Prepared for Miles Davis and American Culture II (May 10-11, 1996, Washington University, St. Louis)

NB: Sound clips (marked by the [S] symbol) are in .mp3 format. A guide to the sound clips is available in appendix 3.

The First Medleys

From the middle of the '60s the pieces performed in Miles Davis' concerts were organised in suites, that is in medleys without any break between the pieces. The first experiments of this type can be traced back to the concerts at the end of 1965, during the performances immediately following his nine month absence from the music scene due to a medical operation in April and the domestic accident that followed.

It was probably during this long period of convalescence that Miles conceived his new idea. In the recordings made at Plugged Nickel (December 1965), the pieces are, in fact, performed in close sequence. This is not to say that they can be called medleys yet, as there is no real interrelation between the pieces, but the elimination of pauses between one piece and the next was the first step towards the conception of a "suite."

The time spent in hospital at the end of January 1966 again interrupted his performing engagements, but when he resumed playing, Davis kept to the path he had started along the previous December, as is shown by the recording made at the "Portland State College Festival" on 21 May 1966 (see note 1).

The technique of "link" is fully used and further refined during the European tour of 1967. In these concerts Miles sometimes starts the theme of a new piece while the rest of the band is still playing the end of the previous piece, creating a parallel to the cross-fade effect used in cinema.

New "Directions"

When Chick Corea and Dave Holland (followed by Jack DeJohnette) joined the band, the concert repertoire of "standards" and "originals" changed rapidly. The number of standards was cut back, leaving only the following:

Gingerbread Boy
Green Dolphin Street
I Fall in Love Too Easily
'Round Midnight

(These are the only standards documented by at least one live recording.)

The original repertoire can be divided into two groups or types:

The first group was made up of so-called "classic" compositions by Davis and other members of his band:

Miles (Milestones)
No Blues
So What

It should be noted, however, that these pieces were treated in a substantially different way than the versions made by the former rhythm section (Hancock/Carter/Williams).

The second group was made up of new modal compositions, mostly based on a single pedal figure (see note 2) or on short sequences of chords:

It's About That Time
Miles Runs the Voodoo Down
Spanish Key

Miles' new path forward was indicated by a composition with a fairly explicit title: "Directions." The tune was by Joe Zawinul, but the structure was thoroughly re-worked by Davis: compare the two versions recorded and released by Sony/Columbia records with the versions performed by Weather Report. (see note 3)

Miles Davis had been experimenting with the use of the pedals since 1950, when he had altered the harmonic structure of "Conception" by George Shearing (see appendix 1); these experiments had culminated in Kind of Blue. The new "direction" led towards a further stripping down of the harmonic structure.

Later, we will see that certain pieces were conceived without any set melody and were characterised solely by a particular bass vamp.

The MD's Code

Work on the new form continued throughout 1969. "Directions" soon became the "overture" in concerts given by Miles' band and within a few months the "live" repertoire was enriched by many other compositions of this type. Meanwhile, in February, with his enlarged band, Davis produced his first real musical monument based on these new ideas: "It's About That Time," released on the album In a Silent Way. This was followed by several concerts in which the new compositions were performed.

Consider the set of Antibes concert (France) on 25th July 1969 (all the pieces were performed as a medley, available on Sony SRCS 6843, 1969 Miles: Festiva de Juan Pins ):

Miles Runs the Voodoo Down
Miles (Milestones)
'Round midnight
I Fall in Love Too Easily
It's About That Time
The Theme

In the time when Miles was playing standards, it was very simple to link together pieces with the standard structure:

THEME / solos / THEME

The new question was how to insert smoothly compositions without any clear harmonic course and without a real structure ("song form") into the sequence of the medley?

On analysing recordings of the concerts of this period (obtained from radio broadcasts or from private recordings), I asked myself how it was possible for the whole band to change key, mood, tempo and so on in such an unexpected way. Obviously a system of predetermined signals had to exist.

The method devised by Miles to signal the beginning and end of a number was very simple but extremely effective.

To uncover the system, I started comparing recordings of the various concerts, identifying musical situations similar in key, form and rhythm. I discovered that all the "similar musical situations" were preceded by the same phrase played by Miles Davis on the trumpet.

Having checked this theory carefully, it became clear that these "phrases" were used by the leader during the course of the long medleys to signal the wish to go on to the next piece. In my analyses I have discovered three types of what I call "coded phrase" corresponding to particular characteristics of the relative piece:

  1. The first notes of the tune
  2. The bass vamp
  3. The voicings of the harmonic progressions

For example, in the case of "It's About That Time" the coded phrase is taken from the voicings of the descending chord progressions played by the electric piano (audible at 5:02 of the version published on In a Silent Way) [S].

As many of the compositions performed in the concerts between 1969 and 1975 were without themes, being based exclusively on a rhythmic idea or on a bass vamp, the coded phrases help us also to correctly identify the pieces. In addition, the bass vamps often underwent substantial changes in the course of the tours (see "Directions" or "It's About That Time") and not even a comparison of the keys is enough to help us, as there are several cases of similar or identical keys (as with "It's About That Time" and "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down").

In August 1969 Miles was back in the studio with a notably bigger band for the recording of Bitches Brew. The technique of the coded phrase as a guiding instrument was even used within one of the pieces on this album: "Spanish Key."

The recording of this number was anticipated by several live performances, in the course of which the whole system was "run in" (modes, bass vamps, coded phrases, breaks, colours). We can appreciate the perfected system on the published version.

"Spanish Key" is characterized by several changes of key that follow one another during the solos (for the structure and the sequence of the solos see appendix 2).

Three modal scales are used: two of darker character (D phrygian and E phrygian) and one of much brighter character (G mixolydian). In the first two scales there is a certain increased ambiguity caused by the use of alternate thirds (major and minor) and a substantially more chromatic approach by the soloists. The modulation from E to G is always anticipated by Corea (probably prompted by Davis), who performs a call break [S]. Modulations are always initiated by the soloist who performs a phrase in the new key, thus signalling his own wish to change the tonal centre.

This device was used for the first time in "Flamenco Sketches" (on the album Kind of Blue) and again in "Teo" (on the album Someday My Prince Will Come). Even in these two pieces the moment of modulation between the various scales -- five in the first and three in the second, whose sequence was decided beforehand -- is changed at will by the soloist or by one of the members of the rhythm section. Another perhaps more superficial point, but one which should be noted, is the Spanish inspiration of the titles, which is reflected in the character of the actual performances: in these two pieces, as in "Spanish Key", great use is made of strongly Spanish-sounding phrygian scales and harmonic minors.

Conceptual continuity or use of a tested formal device? I believe that Davis was trying, and he succeeded brilliantly, to adapt the idea of "Flamenco Sketches" to the musical experimentation of that time. In fact, in the course of his career, Davis was to adopt this type of structure again, albeit using different modal scales (still Spanish-influenced though), in one of his most-frequently performed pieces at the beginning of the 1980s: "Fat Time."

The Second Evolution

In the autumn of 1970 Davis' band underwent further substantial changes. The musicians who took part in the "Tonight Show" in October 1970 were the following: Miles Davis, Gary Bartz, Keith Jarrett, Mike Henderson, Jack DeJohnette, Jim "Jumma Santos" Riley, and Airto Moreira. In this period, the figure of Mike Henderson, who remained in Miles' band until its dissolution in 1975, was important, above all because of his gift of rhythmic solidity. But the real forces of this band were Gary Bartz and Keith Jarrett.

The new band had eliminated from their repertoire not only the standards but also the so-called "classic originals". The oldest pieces performed in concerts were "Directions" and "Sanctuary", while the rest of the repertoire consisted entirely of new compositions, made up of granite-like bass vamps based on rock rhythms and by a few thematic microphrases:

Funky Tonk
Honky Tonk
What I Say
Yesternow (from Jack Johnson)

Live recordings from the period show that the medley technique was constantly used.

In autumn 1971, the band went on a long European tour, but just before the start the whole percussion section was changed: James Mtume Foreman became a permanent member of the band (he too, like Henderson, remained with it until its historic disbandment), Leon Chancler replaced Jack DeJohnette, and Don Alias was taken on as an extra percussionist.

This was the program for most of the concerts in the European tour:

Honky Tonk
What I Say
It's About That Time
Yesternow, part 1
Funky Tonk
Sanctuary theme

All the pieces were performed in medley and all the changes were called by Miles using coded phrases.

A particularly interesting piece is "Funky Tonk," in which Miles, after playing the coded phrase on his wah-wah muted trumpet, leaves a big space for Keith Jarrett, who performs a solo accompanied only by the percussion [S]; this solo ends with a pre-determined pattern, after which all the band joins in. The pattern starts with a long sustained chord (played by the keyboard), over which the rhythm section starts to boil again. Then suddenly the bass and electric piano play a very rhythmic phrase in unison built on the pentatonic minor of "Eb" [S]. This leads to the bass vamp, over which Miles and then Bartz play their solos (Miles' solo includes the exposition of the primary theme corresponding to the coded phrase played before Jarrett's solo) [S].

On the Corner...

At the end of the European tour Jarrett left the band. Unfortunately we don't have any information regarding the period immediately following the tour (apart from the session in March in which "Red China Blues" was recorded). What is certain is that in June 1972, Miles and Teo Macero summoned a large group of ex-band members into the studio to realise another large scale project. The result of this session was released in On the Corner.

The music had evolved still further and instruments such as the tabla and sitar (first acoustic and then electric) had been employed in the band. Another important development regarding the band was the regular addition of the guitar, which was used by Davis in all subsequent line-ups. In addition to this, Miles subsequently electrified his trumpet and started to play the organ more often in his concerts.

Unfortunately there are few recordings apart from the concert that was recorded and released by Columbia which show this period of transition between the end of 1971 and the beginning of 1973. The operative band in this phase was made up of: Miles Davis (electric trumpet and organ), Carlos Garnett (saxes), Cedric Lawson (organ, synth), Reggie Lucas (guitar), Khalil Balakrishna (electric sitar), Mike Henderson (electric bass), Al Foster (drums), James Mtume Foreman (percussion, conga) and Badal Roy (tabla).

In January 1973 Miles insisted on Dave Liebman joining the band (Liebman had already taken part in the recording of On the Corner). After a brief period of settling down, the band started work on new compositions and structures; many new bass vamps were developed from this time and the driving force, generated by Henderson, Foster and Mtume when they worked over both African-style polyrhythms and in more funky-style situations, was tremendous.

Towards the end of March, the band conceived a new module to use in concert, to which they gave the provisional working title "Tune in 5." This piece consists of a polyrhythmic pattern characterised by a rhythm base in 5/4 time on which the guitar plays predetermined phrases and the bass plays the root; the key, however, changed depending on the occasion.

The novelty of the composition was rooted in the fact that "Tune in 5" was used repeatedly in the course of a concert, either as a link between two numbers or as a spontaneous digression in the middle of a number. Let's look, for example, at the way this module was used in the concert at Greensboro in March/April 1973; the sequence of themes and bass vamps was as follows:

Moja-Nne (a.k.a. Turnaroundphrase)
Tune in 5
Black Satin / Tune in 5 / Black Satin
Right Off, (part 4 from Jack Johnson)
Untitled composition #04*
Tune in 5
Untitled composition #05*

* Note: To identify the unpublished compositions or those published without a title, I have drawn up a catalogue of all the coded phrases, bass vamps and themes from the electric period, giving them successive numbers.

As we can see, "Tune in 5" was performed a full 3 times in the course of the concert.

"Tune in 5" remained in the repertoire until the band's dissolution, but flourished again with Al Foster in several concerts given at the beginning of the '80s.

In this period, Davis produced a synthesis of the techniques used up to that time, composing several pieces characterised by the simultaneous or alternate playing of two themes, rhythms or bass vamps from different compositions. An example of this technique is the number "Mtume," released on Get Up With It, where the bass vamp from "What I Say" and the progression from "It's About That Time" are alternated repeatedly. [S].

This technique was to be subsequently developed successfully by the band formed in 1983, consisting of Al Foster, Marcus Miller, Bill Evans, John Scofield and Mino Cinelu; but that is another story.

Final Considerations

Finally, I would like to focus on an aspect that I feel very strongly about. While I was putting all these hours of unpublished material under the microscope, looking for a common denominator that would help me discover the methods used by Miles to lead his band, I asked myself many times how useful it all was. A risk of this type of analysis is that it can sterilize the artistic content of a work, which, by itself, doesn't need any verbal explanation. It's like separating the brush-strokes of a picture by Picasso to understand what impulses from his mind guided his hand in every movement. An artist, however, gives his attention to the work of art as a whole.

The "explicit verbal instruction" in Miles' music never existed, not even in the preparation of pieces. This is shown to be true from the conversations I had with Dave Liebman, Dave Holland, Joe Zawinul, Miroslav Vitous, Bill Evans, Bob Berg, and John Scofield -- they said that Miles rarely gave any instructions as to what should be played. From these conversations, it is clear that the so-called "coded phrases" were never formalized in the sense of a priori agreements or even arrangements. Anyway these signals existed and were so clear and efficient that everyone knew which "direction" to take.

My research should be seen, therefore, as an attempt to identify and isolate several elements of a mosaic, but, in order to appreciate the effect produced by the putting together of these elements, it is necessary to stand back and look at the work in its entirety.


Note 1. Portland 66

In this concert, new pieces in the current Davis repertoire were performed: "Gingerbread Boy" (subsequently recorded for the album "Miles Smiles") and "Who Can I Turn To?" (the only known version of this standard played by Miles).

Note 2. Pedal figures and bass vamps

The new compositions based on pedal figures in the same "mode" (key), were characterized by repeated harmonic/rhythmic figures of a 4-bar maximum length.

Note 3. "Directions" versions

CBS/Sony CSCS 5135/6 - Directions (2 CD) - 2 versions
Sony SRCS 6843 - 1969 Miles: Festiva de Juan Pins
Sony/Columbia 476909 2 - At Fillmore (2 CD) - 2 versions
CBS/Sony 50DP 707/8 - Live-Evil (2 CD)
CBS CD 32062 - I Sing the Body Electric

APPENDIX 1. Conception/Deception

At the beginning of 1950 Davis developed a new idea for the well- known piece by George Shearing, "Conception", modifying its theme, structure and harmony. In particular, the modifications made by Davis to the original structure (a scheme of "A/A/B/A" in which section "A" comprises 12 bars, while section "B" is of 8 bars) consist of the insertion of two extra measures in the final "A" and an G pedal held from the seventh to the eleventh measures of this section.

Having made these changes, Miles wrote two completely new themes for the sections "B" and "A1". The result is a thematic development based on the scheme "A/A/B/A1".

In all the versions by Davis the solos unfold on a structure "A1/A1/B/A1" (in other words with all the "A" sections extended to 14 bars and without the pedal in the key of G).

What deserves consideration, moreover, is the fact that "Deception" was the first piece by Davis in which there appears a pedal on a single chord over which improvisation takes place. This was an idea which would be exploited in two subsequent pieces: "Take Off" and "The Leap" recorded for Blue Note in 1954. These compositions herald the modal approach, explored in "Miles (Milestones)" and culminating in Kind of Blue.

Given such a substantial work of arrangement, I prefer to indicate the piece with the double title "Conception/Deception". It was officially only released on the disc Birth of the Cool, but the first known version of the new arrangement was performed in the company of Stan Getz on February 18, 1950 at Birdland and released on various unofficial discs (e.g. Ozone 1 [LP]; Charly/Le Jazz CD 23 [CD]).

It is possible that this arrangement was conceived in collaboration with Gil Evans.

APPENDIX 2. Structures and sequence of the solos in "Spanish Key":

  • INTRO + THEME played by Miles: E (0:36) --> conclusion in A/D (1:06);
  • Solo by Miles (1:19/3:23): D --> E (2:39) --> break by Corea and modulation: E --> G (3:11);
  • Solo by McLaughlin (3:31/5:16): G ;
  • Break by Corea: G --> E (5:20) followed by THEMATIC extract played by Miles;
  • Solo by Shorter (5:37/9:13): E --> D (6:47) --> E (7:49) --> break by Corea and modulation: E --> G (8:41);
  • THEME played by Miles: E (9:17) --> conclusion in A/D (9:39);
  • Duet by McLaughlin + Corea: D (9:48/10:45);
  • Solo by Miles (10:46/13:58): D --> E (11:41) --> break by Corea and modulation: E --> G (13:49);
  • Solo by Corea (13:57/15:07): G;
  • Solo by Maupin (15:07/16:48): G --> E (15:20);
  • THEME played by Miles: E (16:48) --> conclusion in A/D (17:11).

APPENDIX 3. Guide to sound clips:

"It's About That Time," from In a Silent Way.
An excerpt (beginning at 4:52) containing the signature descending chord progression later used as a "coded phrase" to mark the transition to "It's About That Time." (The phrase appears at approximately 0:10 of the sample.) (0:27)
Transition to "It's About That Time," from a performance at the Juan-les-Pins Festival, Antibes, 7/25/69.
Davis uses the coded phrase to signal the transition to "It's About That Time." (The phrase appears at 0:11 of the sample.) (0:29)
Key change in "Spanish Key," from Bitches Brew.
One of several examples of modulation in this tune; Chick Corea's standard call break signalling the modulation from E --> G. (The passage begins around 3:00 of "Spanish Key"; the phrase appears at 0:10 of the sample.) (0:23)
Coded phrase in "Funky Tonk," from a performance at the Cellar Door, Washington, 12/19/70 (issued on Live-Evil)
Miles plays the coded phrase on the wah-wah muted trumpet, then leaves room for Keith Jarrett's electric piano solo. The selection begins at approximately 16:40 of "Funky Tonk" (disc 2, track 2); the phrase appears at 0:14 of the sample. (0:48)
Another excerpt from "Funky Tonk," Cellar Door 12/19/70
The end of Jarrett's solo and the transition to the "Funky Tonk" theme, marked by a riff (built on the pentatonic minor of Eb) and bass vamp. The selection begins at approximately 21:17 of "Funky Tonk." (1:26)
Bass vamp from "Funky Tonk" with Miles' statement of the theme
Miles' statement of the "Funky Tonk" theme -- which corresponds to the coded phrase played before Jarrett's solo. The selection begins at 0:01 of "Inamorata" (disc 2, track 3 of Live-Evil), which is really a continuation of "Funky Tonk." (0:33)
Sao Paulo, May 1974
From a May 1974 concert in Sao Paulo. Two themes against each other: Reggie Lucas (g) plays the theme from "Willie Nelson" while the "Tune in 5" figure is played by Al Foster (dm). (1:21)

Brief Bibliography

  • MILES DAVIS + QUINCY TROUPE: Miles: The Autobiography (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1989)
  • JACK CHAMBERS: Milestones I + II, The Music and Times of Miles Davis (Quill, W. Morrow, New York, 1983), reprinted as a single volume, 1985)
  • IAN CARR: Miles Davis (Quartet Books, London, 1982)
  • ERIC NISENSON: 'Round About Midnight: A Portrait of Miles Davis (The Dial Press, New York, 1982; updated edition by Da Capo Press, 1996)
  • JAN LOHMANN: The Sound of Miles Davis: The Discography 1945-1991 (JazzMedia, Copenhagen, 1992)
  • LAURENT CUGNY: Electrique Miles Davis 1968-1975 (André Dimanche Éditeur, Marseille, 1993)


  • CBS/Sony CSCS 5135/6 - Directions (2 CD)
  • Sony/Columbia 467898 2 - Circle in the Round (2 CD)
  • Sony/Columbia 472209 2 - Miles in the Sky
  • Sony/Columbia 467088 2 - Filles de Kilimanjaro
  • CBS/Sony 32DP 727 - Water Babies
  • Sony/Columbia 450982 2 - In a Silent Way
  • Sony SRCS 6843 - 1969 Miles - Festiva de Juan Pins
  • CBS 66236 - Bitches Brew
  • CBS/Sony 50DP 705/6 - Big Fun (2 CD)
  • CBS/Sony SOPH 49/50 - MILES DAVIS (2 LP)
  • Sony/Columbia 471003 2 - A Tribute to Jack Johnson
  • CBS 450472 1 - Isle of Wight
  • CBS/Sony 50DP 710/1 - Black Beauty
  • Sony SRCS 5726/7 - Get Up With It (2 CD)
  • CBS/Sony 50DP 707/8 - Live-Evil (2 CD)
  • Sony/Columbia 476909 2 - At Fillmore (2 CD)
  • Sony/Castle Communications EDF CD 327 - Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival 1970
  • Sony/Columbia 474371 2 - On the Corner
  • Sony/Columbia 476910 - In Concert (2 CD)
  • CBS/Sony 50DP 719/20 - Dark Magus (2 CD)
  • Sony/Columbia 467897 2 - Agharta (2 CD)
  • Sony/Columbia 467087 2 - Pangaea (2 CD)


  • Moon MLP010/11-2 - Double Image
  • Nippon Crown CRCJ-10001 - Gemini
  • Nippon Crown CRCJ-10017 - Double Image
  • Lunch For Your Ears Lfye 001 - Spanish Key
  • Jazz Music Yesterday JMY 1013-2 - Paraphernalia
  • Jazz Masters JM 006 - Hill Auditorium 2/21/70
  • Jazz Masters JM 007 - Fillmore West 10/17/70 (also on Minotauro MD CD 1-4 - Live 1970-1973)
  • Jazz Masters JM 001/2 - Lennies on the Turnpike '71 (2 CD)
  • The golden age of Jazz JZCD 374 - Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett Live
  • Jazz Masters JM 008/9 - Neue Stadthallen, Switzerland 10/22/71 (2 CD) (part of medley on Minotauro MD CD 1-4 - Live 1970-1973)
  • Jazz Door JD 1284/85 - Another Bitches Brew (2 CD)
  • Jazz Music Yesterday JMY 1015-2 - What I Say?, vol. 1
  • Jazz Music Yesterday JMY 1016-2 - What I Say?, vol. 2
  • Lunch for Your Ears LFYE 006/07 - Berlin and Beyond
  • Miles MD-1 - Miles Davis in Sweden 1971
  • Moon MCD 063 - Voodoo Down
  • Jazz Masters JM 011/12 - Black Satin (2 CD)
  • Lunch For Your Ears Lfye 002 - Ife
  • Trema/Europe 1 710460 - En Concert avec Europe 1
  • Jazz Music Yesterday JMY ME 6403 - Call It What It Is
  • Jazz Masters JM 003 - Berlin '73 (also on Minotauro MD CD 1-4 - Live 1970-1973)
  • Jazz Masters JM 016 - Palais des Sports - Paris 1973
  • Jazz Masters JM 017/18 - New York, Bottom Line 1975 (2 CD)

Special thanks to:

James Hale and Eric Nisenson; my presence in St. Louis would not have been possible without their help.

Robin Fox, for help with the English version of this paper.

Giacomo Balestra, Philippe Bocher, Maurizio Comandini, Jonathan Feldman, Peter Losin, Albert McMahill, Gianni Paganini, Andrea Passerini, Hans Schadee, Wolf Schmaler, Mark A. White; for providing tapes, corrections and suggestions for this paper, but overall for their friendship and patience.

My friend Franco D'Andrea, who spent with me sleepless nights analysing and discussing about the topics of this paper.

Dave Liebman, who trusted in my research and provided me the private recordings he made during his period with Miles.

The members of the "Miles Davis Mailing List" (on the Internet); the biggest gold mine for information about Miles.

All the people who helped me in my work on Miles' music.

Gerald Early and Elizabeth Kellerman for their kindness and trust in my theories.

The information in this paper is taken from a catalogue of the issued and unissued material, recorded and unrecorded performances of Miles Davis.

During the last eight years I have analyzed many private recordings, official records and bootlegs, a lot of interviews (recorded or published in magazines), and other material regarding Miles.

In doing this research, I have listed every date I found (concerts, sessions, interviews, participations as actor, etc.). For each concert or studio session, I have identified every known tune and listed every issued and unissued theme and bass vamp. Particular attention has been paid to the identification of the pieces of the "gold" electric period (1968-75). Doing my research I have prepared a DAT tape with every (issued and unissued) theme and bass vamp played by Miles' band between 1968 and 1975.

The whole work is organized in a data base (with FileMakerPro), so it is possible to access it for research purposes. At present, more than 1700 venues are listed in the catalogue and for each of these dates there are complete discographical references and extensive notes about the session. Every performed number contains information about the music, the sequences of the solos and a brief analysis of the music.

For more information, or if you have comments or suggestions, please contact:

Enrico Merlin
Via Venezia 12
38100 Trento
ITALY (email)
+39/461/915452 (tel)
+39/461/984742 (fax)